Volunteers of America


Short profile and history

Volunteers of America (VOA) is a national, nonprofit, spiritually based organization providing local human service programs and opportunities for individual and community involvement. Founded in 1896, Volunteers of America is one of the nationís largest and most comprehensive charitable nonprofit human services organizations.Volunteers of America helps youths at risk, frail elderly, abused and neglected children, people with disabilities, homeless individuals and many others.VOA isone of the nationís largest nonprofit providers of quality, affordable housing for the underprivileged, the elderly and the disabled.


Nationwide, VOA employs over 14,000 professionals and more than 70,000 volunteers and serves nearly 1.8 million people a year.†† Programs are locally created, managed, and delivered through a network of community-based offices. Each local office determines the need of the community to be served, then designs and operates human services to meet those needs.

International engagement discussions

When in the mid-1990ís Volunteers of America decided to explore a greater international engagement, its leadership determined that its mission (of providing local human service programs and opportunities for individual and community involvement) was increasingly relevant worldwide.When the VOA Board began to discuss how the organizationís programs could be enriched by a larger international engagement, as a first step they conducted a study to look at international opportunities.The VOA then decided to proceed slowly so the program could be well integrated into its overall programs.Its first stage was to begin more extensive networking with sister organizations that had international programs.

VOA took several steps: 1) Utilized existing relationships with groups doing overseas work to learn from their experiences and develop possibilities for a joint venture.These groups included Catholic Charities (and its sister group Catholic Relief Services), Christian Relief Services and Habitat for Humanity.2) Began participating in existing nongovernmental organization coalitions with an international orientation in areas that called upon VOA=s strengths in the U.S and 3)Beganto explore developing some pilot projects focusing on specific geographic locations, in cooperation with sister organizations that VOA has a relationship with and that had an overseas presence, to analyze some of these overseas locations vis a vis potential locations that may be suited to VOA=s expertise.


A few years later, the organizationís leadership determined the best course of expansion to be through collaborative ventures with indigenous partners reasoning that:(1) deference should be given to local directionóa principle which underlies the organizationís success in the U.S.; (2) resources should not be spent on duplication of effort; (3)serving people most in need could best be achieved by helping to build skills that lead to self-sufficiency.In 2001, VOA had an opportunity to partner with a small non-profit meeting the criteria, Mano La Paz or ďHands For Peacemaking.ĒMano La Paz works with Mayan Indians in community development projects throughout the remote Guatemalan highlands of Huehuetenango.An agreement to partner was the first step in working together, the ultimate goal being the establishment of a new joint venture in Guatemala.††


Although jointly controlled by the two parent organizations, the joint venture would be a separate legal entity.Mano La Paz benefits from the association with one of the U.S.ís largest human service agencies.Volunteers of America reduces its risk exposure by collaborating with an established in-country partner.Both organizations benefit by pooling resources to gain economies of scale and to avoid competition. The first country director for Mano La Paz was the first participant in the Volunteers of America Global Fellowship Program which invites emerging civil society leaders from around the world to join with Volunteers of America in an interdisciplinary executive education program in nonprofit management at a U.S. university. VOA has also received funding from the U.S. Department of State to host an exchange program between the U.S. and Guatemala for healthcare and social service professionals working with people with disabilities.


Some lessons learned


1)      Finding the right path(s) for an organization to take internationally takes time and planning; 2) Use existing networks; 3) Choice of international partner(s) is very important andrelationships are not built quickly;3) For overseas activities, an up-front resource commitment is necessary to ensure adequate communication and representation in planning initiatives; 4) Have a written agreement detailing the parameters of the partnerships; 5) All partners need flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances, and agility to respond to new opportunities.


Sources: Going Global for the Greater Good, Jossey Bass, 2004 and www.voa.org